When Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is described as an existential threat to Israel, addressing it can seem daunting as a matter of national policy, let alone on the community level. But community actions have real impacts. In fact, while action at the Federal level can often be slow, local efforts have become invaluable. The recent passage of an Iran/Sudan Divestment bill in Florida is the perfect example. The bill’s passage came about in large part through the work of a coalition of Community Relations Councils and Federations in South Florida.
Using the example set by California’s divestment bill, Luis Fleischman from the Palm Beach County Jewish Community Relations Council and Tara Laxer from the South Palm Beach Jewish Community Relations Council decided Florida had to strengthen their state’s legislation. Their campaign took a comprehensive approach to help cut off all funds to Iran. While there was an existing law on the books, it banned, for instance, only state employee pension funds from investing in Iran or Sudan. It was insufficient because no such standard existed for local governments. In nine municipalities, the two CRCs worked with groups like firefighters to divest their pensions from Iran. This town-by-town strategy, unique to Florida, was helpful in paving the way for the stronger statewide bill.
To introduce the legislation, they approached a Republican State Senator with whom they were friendly, Ellyn Bogdanoff. For it to be successful, however, they all agreed that it should be bipartisan and reach as many groups as possible. And so, they reached out to Mack Bernard, a young Haitian Democrat to serve as cosponsor in the State House of Representatives. With a bill introduced, it was time to build statewide support.
The key was interfaith relationships. While the issue of Iran is important in the Jewish community, Jews are concentrated mostly in South Florida. To build a statewide coalition, it was essential to reach out beyond the Jewish community. Collaboration and relationships were essential to spreading their message. One of the most valuable messengers in this effort was Muhammad Hussein, a Muslim from Sudan. Muhammad would travel with Tara to speak at local public and private schools as well as to interfaith groups. An untraditional speaker to many, Muhammad stressed that regimes like Iran and Sudan represent a fundamentalist threat. It was important for moderates like himself to stand--and recruit others to stand with him--in opposition to such dangerous fundamentalism. His message was welcomed in part because of the power of his experiences and because he was not a traditional messenger.
The CRCs were also creative in using schools to build support. As divesting teachers’ pensions was one of the goals, they encouraged students to get together and call their representatives in the state legislature. Student by student, passing the phone from one to another, they would tell their legislators that they did not want their teachers’ pensions invested in Iran and Sudan. The result was a multiplier effect. Each call would result in hundreds of names in support. Legislative offices had no choice but to take note.
Even with all this support building, not everybody was aware of the need to divest from Iran and Sudan, and the bill hit a snag in the Florida House. One committee chairman, from a district in the north of the state, was unfamiliar with the issue and felt that there were more important priorities. Without his approval, the bill could not advance from his committee to a full vote. Committed to the bill’s passage, Luis decided to blindly call a synagogue in the Chairman’s district. “If you have something important to say, say it,” said Luis about his experience. This bill was important and it was worth a call, even without an existing relationship. As it happened, this kind of personal outreach worked. Luis spoke to a lay leader in the community who in turn reached out to his representative who was responsible for the legislation’s delay. Having a friend and constituent explain the importance made all the difference and the bill moved from committee. Thanks to the personal outreach, messengers like Muhammad, and intense lobbying throughout the state, the bill moved swiftly without debate and was quickly signed into law.